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How locust ecology inspired an opera

What happens when an entomologist writes a libretto?

10:00am, November 26, 2018
soprano Cristin Colvin performing

INSECT ARIA  In an opera about species extinction, soprano Cristin Colvin of Denver performed in September as the ghost of the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

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Locust: The Opera finds a novel way to doom a soprano: species extinction.

The libretto, written by entomologist Jeff Lockwood of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, features a scientist, a rancher and a dead insect. The scientist tenor agonizes over why the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct at the dawn of the 20th century. He comes up with hypotheses, three of which unravel to music and frustration.

The project hatched in 2014. “Jeff got in his head, ‘Oh, opera is a good way to tell science stories,’ which takes a creative mind to think that,” says Anne Guzzo, who composed the music. Guzzo teaches music theory and composition at the University of Wyoming.

an illustration of a Rocky Mountain locust
The Melanoplus spretus locust brought famine and ruin to farms across the western United States. “This was a devastating pest that caused enormous human suffering,” Lockwood says. Epic swarms would suddenly descend on and eat vast swaths of cropland. “On the other hand, it was an iconic species that defined and shaped the continent.”

an illustration of a locust swarm devouring a wheat field
Lockwood had written about the locust’s mysterious and sudden extinction in the 2004 book Locust, but the topic “begged in my mind for the grandeur of opera.” He spent several years mulling how to create a one-hour opera for three singers about the swarming grasshopper species.

Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the opera “Amleto,” based on Shakespeare’s play, inspired a breakthrough. Lockwood imagined a spectral soprano locust, who haunted a scientist until he figured out what killed her kind.

To make one locust soprano represent trillions, Guzzo challenged her music theory class to find ways of evoking the sound of a swarm. They tried snapping fingers, rattling cardstock and crinkling cellophane. But “the simplest answer was the most elegant,” Guzzo says — tasking the audience with shivering sheets of tissue paper in sequence, so that a great wave of rustling swept through the auditorium.

For the libretto, Lockwood took an unusually data-driven approach. After surveying opera lengths and word counts, he paced his work at 25 to 30 words per minute, policing himself sternly. If a scene was long by two words, he’d find two to cut.

a composite photo with composer Anne Guzzo on the left and entomologist Jeff Lockwood on the right
He wrote the dialogue not in verse, but as conversation, some of it a bit professorial. Guzzo asked for a few line changes. “I just couldn’t get ‘manic expressions of fecundity’ to fit where I wanted it to,” she says.

Eventually, the scientist solves the mystery, but takes no joy in telling the beautiful locust ghost that humans had unwittingly doomed her kind by destroying vital locust habitat. For tragedy, Lockwood says, “there has to be a loss tinged with a kind of remorse.”

The opera, performed twice in Jackson, Wyo., will next be staged in March in Agadir, Morocco.

Further Reading

A. Witze. Swarming locusts impossible to predict. Science News Online. July 23, 2010.

J.A. Lockwood and L.D. Debrey. A solution for the sudden and unexplained extinction of the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae). Environmental Entomology. Vol. 19, October 1990, p. 1194. doi: 10.1093/ee/19.5.1194.

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